10. Sweet Country
Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah ) continues his run of outstanding Australian cinema with a much needed, and all too rare indigenous perspective, with his prize-winning “counter western”, Sweet Country.
Having taken home the Special Jury Prize at Venice as well as the Platform Prize at TIFF 2017, this outstanding, heart-rending drama is inspired by actual events that unfolded in the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory in the 1920s. Here a grievous miscarriage of justice exposed the deep-seated racism underlying Australia’s foundational myth.
Hamilton Morris is magnetic as Sam Kelly, a middle-aged Aboriginal farmer who’s self-defence murder of a white man gives Sweet Country a story seared with anger, pain, and sorrow. Buttressed by Thornton’s own generous and gorgeous cinematography, which calls to mind the mystery and almost supernatural presence of other great artistic Aussie masterworks like Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)––particularly given some of Sweet Country’s inspired and spooky editing experiments.
9. Birds of Passage
Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s re-working of the family crime saga spans 12 years from 1968 to 1980 as we intimately connect with a family of indigenous Wayuu people who grow more and more involved with the Colombian drug trade and the inevitable violence that follows.
Living steadfast with their own ideas of honor and traditions, the Wayuu wisely are wary of outsiders until a young Wayuu many named Rapayet (José Acosta) is set to marry into a family dominated by the matriarchal Ursula (Carmiña Martínez, brilliant) and starts large-scale marijuana dealing. What starts as easy money, managed by the increasingly ruthless Ursula, gets everyone involved into a darkening world dominated by violence.
Told in five chapters, and replete with authentic Wayuu costumes and traditions, Guerra and Gallego’s taut, textured, and endlessly fascinating drama is an impressive crime story different from any you’ve ever seen before. Don’t miss it.
8. Sicilian Ghost Story
Julia Jedlikowska wonderfully portrays Luna, a naive and tender teen, who pines for and later will try to extricate her dreamy classmate Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez), in Italian directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s haunting, rhythmic and slow burning film.
Inspired by a shocking real-life incident involving a teen’s 1996 abduction and murder by the Sicilian Mafia –– the teen’s father was a cooperating witness –– Sicilian Ghost Story casts a spectral and ghastly glow. Luna shares a psychic connection to Giuseppe and his absence from school provokes in her visions and waking fantasies of “things that might exist”, including his ghostly form.
Elegantly photographed by the brilliant cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (2013’s The Great Beauty), this is a chimera-like film, hypnotic, and languidly seductive, while remaining shockingly grim.
7. The Old Man & the Gun
“The Old Man & the Gun generally feels like the best kind of tribute,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, “one that understands the material so well that it inhabits its very essence.” And so writer-director David Lowery follows up last year’s arthouse sleeper A Ghost Story with this cops and robbers comedy caper (based on David Grann’s New Yorker article) that garnered great reviews but only did just okay at the box-office.
Robert Redford, in what’s to be his final role before he retires from acting, is affable bank robber Forrest Tucker, who at 78 years old is planning one last heist. Not only is Tucker renowned for his bank robbing prowess, he’s also regarded as “one the world’s greatest prison escapologists”, having escaped from the big house 18 times over the years.
Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek stars as Jewel, Tucker’s love-interest, and Casey Affleck is John Hunt, the law man on his tail, and rounding out the impressive cast is Keith Carradine, Danny Glover, Elisabeth Moss, Tika Sumpter, and Tom Waits. So why haven’t you seen it twice by now?
6. American Animals
BAFTA winning documentarian Bart Layton (2012’s The Impostor) conjures Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon as he mixes subjectivity and high-stakes suspense in American Animals, based off the true story of a daring and ridiculous 2004 library heist at the Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.
Misguided, blundering, and delusional wannabe criminal ringleader Warren Lipka (Evan Peters, excellent), and his childhood BFF Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan, continuing his winning streak after a dazzling turn in 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer), egged on by suburban ennui, their favorite film noir anti-heroes, and their knowledge of TU’s special collections library holding incredibly valuable Audubon prints and rare books leads them into an outrageous caper that can only end in disaster.
“Performed with piss, vinegar and some poignancy,” writes Variety’s Guy Lodge, “Layton’s crowd-pleasing Sundance competition entry is tricked out to the max with lithe structural fillips, flashes of cinematic quotation and formal sleight of hand.”
5. The Wild Pear Tree
Adored Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep ) offers up a profound and funny meditation on the creative life in The Wild Pear Tree, perhaps his most accessible film thus far.
An affable, wannabe writer Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol), moves around between his quaint home village and he bustling coastal tourist city of Çanakkale, in something of a comfortable rut. He has one of those “quirky meta novels” that he should be better promoting, but, at the same time, he is drawn to the village of his birth and teaching position there, a job his admired father (Murat Cemcir, brilliant) held at utterly excelled at.
Sinan, while visiting at home, discovers that his father is not at all what he seems: he has a serious gambling addiction and as a result the family now stands at the precipice of financial ruin. Combined with Sinan’s other discovery that an old beloved flame is soon to wed and our protagonist sees himself at a crossroads, and one with irreversible consequences.
Abound with verbal and visual metaphor, The Wild Pear Tree is a lyrical, sensual, and utterly beautiful cinematic experience. Rarely has the bucolic beauty of glowing forests, and rolling hillsides revealed such seeming magic to the everyday. A delight.
4. Summer 1993
Subtle, touching, but never maudlin, Catalin writer-director Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 is a nuanced film about childhood and, more specifically, a young girl’s apprehension of devastating personal tragedy.
Six-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) stares in helpless silence as the last possessions of her recently deceased mother are packed away into boxes and she bids a bitter farewell to the Barcelona apartment they shared. A victim of AIDS, Frida tries to get her head around the fact that she will never see her mother again, even though her aunt, uncle, and young cousin have taken her in and have a new home and life for her in the bucolic Catalan countryside.
Artfully employing an unobtrusive camera, Simón, who based much of Summer 1993 on her own personal experiences, also bays somewhat at the heels of Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive ), and Maurice Pialat (Naked Childhood ), who’s influence mark much of the film.
Summer 1993 is an aching song of delicacy, purity, and restraint, and the results are a vibrant, in spite of the heartache at its core. Simón, who is cresting a wave of Catalin women directors, and her naturalistic style and sensibilities ensure a great career ahead of her, and this is her first small-scale masterwork.
3. Under the Silver Lake
“It’s silly wasting time on something that doesn’t matter,” says a dreamy young woman with a fondness for balloons (Grace Van Patten) to an embittered and unemployed young man turned would-be detective named Sam (Andrew Garfield) in writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s surreal Under the Silver Lake.
Sam isn’t a very likeable layabout, he’s months behind in his rent at a rather low-key lovely apartment complex in the trendy neighborhood of Silver Lake. When he’s not spying on his neighbors with high-powered binoculars, masturbating to vintage Playboys, distractedly screwing his kinda sorta actress girlfriend (Riki Lindhome), or watching old black-and-white movies, Sam is pining over his pretty and provocative neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough).
Under the Silver Lake is dividing audiences down the middle, and that’s to be expected given that it offers an overlong study of self-important, wealthy, and white spoiled brats. These L.A. rats, each in a state of arrested adolescence, fixate on shiny surfaces and shallow beauty and the result is one of the most audacious, campy, and crass offerings of the year.
2. An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn
Jim Hosking, the demented and depraved mind behind 2016’s The Greasy Strangler, finds his sea legs with his artfully inspired sophomore effort, probably the finest comedy film we’ll see all year, the jet black absurdist rom-com An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn.
We’d be remiss not to mention that this brand of outsider cinema will appeal to fans of John Waters in his heyday, but Rick Alverson’s name springs to mind too, and with a cast populated by such stunning, strange, cutting-edge comic actors as Matt Berry, Jemaine Clement, Maria Bamford, and Craig Robinson, all led by Aubrey Plaza, this movie is guaranteed a cult embrace forevermore.
Annoyed and outraged by her domestic life, Lulu Danger (Plaza) finds herself smitten with an incredibly inept hired gun named Colin Keith Threadener (Clement) and plots a reunion with a mysterious tub of guts from her past, the eponymous Beverly Luff Linn (Robinson).
Totally absurd, delightfully over-the-top, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is time well spent for adventurous audiences with fittingly strange sensibilities, a love of the surreal and, as Variety’s Amy Nicholson puts it, “those who delight in championing the next cult film leader [and] will nod along with Clement when he grins, ‘Although I don’t know what what’s going on here, I’m having a great time.’”
Leigh Whannell’s fast-paced cyberpunk genre gem Upgrade is pure catnip for fans of hi-fi horror, lowbrow blood and guts, slick action, and a satirical sting. Using a gleefully OTT template similarly used in Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), Upgrade will give you a B-movie o-face for the entirety of its 100 minutes, and that’s in no way a terrible thing.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) barely survives a brutal mugging that leaves his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo) dead and leaves him paralyzed and utterly pissed off. And that’s when Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), a billionaire inventor offers Trace an experimental cure and a chance of redemption via STEM.
Essentially an AI implant, STEM enhances Trace’s body, restoring his ability to walk as well as enhancing his strength and agility to superhero level. But will Trace use these skills to crack the skulls that murdered Asha and destroyed every aspect of his life? You bet he will. And will it be deliriously fun, decidedly low-rent, schlocky to a tee, and also chock full of badassery? Yup, you betcha again.
Upgrade was barely a blip in the multiplex, but excellent word-of-mouth has help to solidify the film’s cult stature and fist-pumping excellence. Is it a masterpiece? Hell no, and it doesn’t have to be to be a gory, groovy, sick, slick, and supremely satisfying thrillride. Granted Upgrade isn’t for everybody (only the lamest of movies are), but it might just be for you!
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.